By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
ATLANTA — In the Hollywood script, Miles Gooch would have made a triumphant return to this city and led UVa’s football team to victory at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium.
Alas for Gooch, who starred at Towers High in nearby Decatur, fate intervened last weekend. The 6-3, 210-pound wide receiver suffered an injury against North Carolina that will sideline him Saturday, when the Cavaliers (4-4 overall, 2-2 ACC) meet the Yellow Jackets (6-2, 3-2) in a Coastal Division clash, though Gooch flew here with the team Friday.
“It’s definitely a loss, a big loss, but we have guys that are going to fill that role,” said sophomore quarterback Greyson Lambert, one of Gooch’s roommates. “It’s just a next-man-up mentality.”
Gooch, a fifth-year senior who until this season had been a role player on offense, caught 24 passes for a team-high 371 yards and one touchdown in UVa’s first eight games. In Gooch’s absence, Keeon Johnson is among the wideouts who will be asked to replace some of that production.
The 6-3, 210-pound Johnson, who sparkled as a true freshman in 2013, has only seven catches for 61 yards this season.
“We’ve challenged Keeon to step up and step out and get out of a comfort zone, because he’s got the size,” Virginia head coach Mike London said Wednesday. “Pound for pound, he’s one of the strongest guys on our team. But we have to be able to see that on the football field. So the challenge is there. We’ll see how he responds to it.”
The challenge is there for rest of the Cavaliers too, against a formidable opponent that ranks first among ACC teams in total offense (481.9 yards per game) and third in scoring offense (37.1 points per game). The Jackets, one of the few Football Bowl Subdivision teams running a triple-option offense, rank third nationally in rushing offense (326.1 yards per game).
“He has a unique style of offense that’s been successful,” London said of his Georgia Tech counterpart, Paul Johnson.
The Cavaliers are coming off a month in which they experienced a wide range of emotions.
On Oct. 4, Virginia defeated Pittsburgh 24-19 to move into first place in the Coastal Division. Since then, however, the `Hoos have dropped two straight games, falling 20-13 at Duke on Oct. 18 and then losing 28-27 to North Carolina at Scott Stadium last weekend.
And now, as they head into a game ESPNU will televise, the Cavaliers find themselves in a four-way tie for third in the seven-team Coastal. Their margin for error has all but disappeared, but they have not lost hope.
“Nobody’s just rolling out their helmet and saying the season’s over at all at this point,” senior linebacker Henry Coley said.
“We still think that we have everything out there for us,” said Lambert, who grew up in the Georgia town of Jesup, about 235 miles southeast of Atlanta.
“We have four games left. The same things we wanted to play for two games ago are still there for us to compete for in this division. Nothing’s really changed.”
London said: “Even after a disappointing loss last week, there are still opportunities to win football games down the stretch. But we have to play our best football.”
Lambert, who missed four games after spraining an ankle Sept. 20 at BYU, returned for the North Carolina game, and he passed for 261 yards and two touchdowns, both career highs. But he also threw two interceptions — the second pick, in the fourth quarter, set up the winning touchdown for UNC — and completed only 20 of 40 attempts.
“Just personally for me,” Lambert said Wednesday, “whenever I play what seems to stick with me are the ones I wish I could have back. It’s always great to get back out on the field with your brothers … and it was a lot of fun, but what sticks with you are the ones you want to correct.”
Lambert split time in UVa’s first four games with classmate Matt Johns, who took over as the starter Sept. 27 against Kent State. Johns did not play against UNC but may have a role off the bench Saturday.
“We’ll see if there’s opportunities to get Matt in there,” London said. “Can’t be shy about putting him [in] there.”
There’s no mystery about what Johnson will do with his quarterbacks. The Jackets amassed 611 yards in a close loss at UNC on Oct. 18 and 612 in a one-sided victory at Pitt last weekend, and the key to their offense is Justin Thomas, a 5-11, 189-pound redshirt sophomore.
“As I’ve said before, our quarterback gives us a chance to do what we want to do,” said Johnson, who’s in his seventh year at Georgia Tech.
“We got back this year to doing what I want to do, and it’s my own fault for getting away from it … I think we’re back to doing a few things good instead of trying to do a lot of things average. And last year what we did was a bunch of things average.”
In 2013, Thomas backed up Vad Lee, who transferred to JMU in January. In his first season as the Jackets’ starter, Thomas has rushed for 717 yards and four touchdowns and passed for 1,106 yards and 11 TDs.
“I see a guy who’s very quick, has very good agility,” UVa safety Anthony Harris said. “He’s a guy who seems like he really knows where he wants to go with the ball [in] passing situations. I think Georgia Tech does a good job of keeping him on the move and rolling him out at times, so he can get a better view of the field.”
Harris, an All-American in 2013, is among the leaders of a defense that ranks No. 21 nationally in yards allowed per game (336.6). Most of defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta’s starters have faced Georgia Tech at least twice.
“Experience plays a part,” Harris said of defending the option, “but it’s just all about using your eyes, reading your keys, knowing where you need to be, whether that’s using your eyes to get in the right area, or using your eyes if you’re seeing the block. That way you don’t get cut and end up on the ground. And then just playing fast and playing physical.”
London said: “We have guys that have played against that style of offense. It’s equally as important for us now to understand that their quarterback is a special player.”
Georgia Tech’s style of blocking is legal, but it’s one few FBS teams use, and UVa defenders will have to be especially alert Saturday.
“We just can’t stand in cement,” London said. “You got to move your feet.”
With their option attack, London said, the Jackets always pose “a challenge because of the different elements that they present. You can be wrong on one assignment, and it could hurt you big time. The challenge for us is to play a consistent four quarter game of assignment [football], run to the football, and minimize the mistakes we make ourselves that could lead to big plays for them.”
The Cavaliers are looking for the first win in this series since 2011, when they upset the No. 12 Jackets 24-21 in Charlottesville, and their first victory at Bobby Dodd Stadium since 2008.
UVa, which will travel to Tallahassee, Fla., to meet unbeaten Florida State next weekend, needs to win two of its remaining games to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2011.
“It’s definitely time to lock in and play for your brothers,” junior cornerback Maurice Canady said.
Harris said: “We just gotta go out there and play. We can’t try to look over the whole season right now as far as where we want to be and how the [second half] of the season has been for us. We just gotta focus on this week right now, focus on Georgia Tech and getting a win, and then seeing where we stand.”